Rafael Nadal won one of the most historically significant matches in tennis history, defeating Novak Djokovic 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 7-5 in the French Open to both break Bjorn Borg's record for French Open titles and end Djokovic's bid to simultaneously hold all four Grand Slam singles titles. Nadal has now won the French Open seven times in eight tries and he owns a 52-1 match record at Roland Garros; Borg won six French Open titles in eight appearances, posting a 49-2 match record. Borg skipped the French Open once during his prime--a result of the Byzantine chess politics of that era--and he retired at just 25 as the four-time reigning French Open champion. The 26 year old Nadal won the French Open the first four times that he entered it--2005-2008--to tie Borg's record for consecutive championships at that event and after Nadal's lone setback in the fourth round in 2009 versus Robin Soderling he has won three more French Open titles in a row.
Commentators have been attempting for years to elevate Roger Federer to greatest of all-time status but while the talking heads chirp and the writing heads pontificate Nadal has been getting the job done where it really matters: between the lines on the court. Nadal is now tied for fourth (with Borg and Rod Laver) on the all-time list with 11 Grand Slam singles titles, trailing only Federer (16), Pete Sampras (14) and Roy Emerson (12)--but in many ways Nadal's career record is more impressive than the career records of Federer, Sampras and Emerson. Nadal has won 11 of the 32 Grand Slam singles events that he entered (.344), a percentage second only to Borg's phenomenal 11/27 (.407); Borg is the only male player who won more Grand Slams at a younger age than Nadal (Borg won his 11th Grand Slam at 25). Federer's Grand Slam winning percentage is .308 (16/52), Sampras' Grand Slam winning percentage is .269 (14/52) and Emerson's Grand Slam winning percentage is .207 (12/58).
Although Emerson did complete the career Grand Slam and was the first player to win at least two titles in each of the Grand Slam events, all of his wins came during an era when professionals were banned from the Grand Slams and six of his 12 Grand Slam titles came in the Australian Open at a time when many top non-Australians did not play in that event, so Emerson cannot be given serious consideration in any legitimate greatest player of all-time discussion. Federer's Grand Slam total is also padded by four Australian triumphs, while Nadal only has one win in the least important Grand Slam and Borg only played Down Under once, early in his career.
Nadal completed the career Grand Slam at 24 (Federer was nearly 28 when he accomplished this) and Nadal has bested Federer on Federer's favorite Grand Slam surface--Wimbledon's grass--but Federer has never beaten Nadal at Roland Garros. Federer has lost in the first round of a Grand Slam six times and Sampras suffered seven first round Grand Slam losses; neither Borg nor Nadal ever lost in the first round of a Grand Slam.
Borg's simultaneous grass (Wimbledon)/clay (French Open) dominance is unparalleled--he won Wimbledon and the French Open in the same year an unprecedented three straight times and when he retired he held the Open Era record for both Wimbeldon titles (five) and French Open titles (six). Sampras (seven) and Federer (six) broke Borg's Wimbledon record and now Nadal has claimed Borg's French Open record but no player has come close to matching Borg's simultaneous multi-surface dominance. It is baffling that Borg is not more widely considered to be the greatest Open Era player or at least on equal footing with Federer and Nadal. Sampras' inability to even make it to the French Open Finals--he only made it to the semifinals once--places him below Borg, Federer and Nadal in the Open Era pantheon.
Djokovic is the wild card in this discussion. He was clearly a distant third behind Federer and Nadal for several years until he had a season for the ages in 2011 but his year of dominance may have ended; after beating Nadal in three straight Grand Slam Finals--and seven straight matches overall, each of them in Finals--Djokovic has lost to Nadal three times in a row, with each of those setbacks coming in Finals. Commentators spoke of Nadal's supposed "Djokovic problem" but it is not unusual for the tide to go back and forth somewhat in a rivalry between two players who are almost exactly the same age--and the reality is that Nadal still has a healthy head to head edge versus Djokovic overall (19-14) and in Grand Slam matches (6-3). It is hard to understand how Nadal's "Djokovic problem" could possibly be more significant or relevant than Roger Federer's much larger "Nadal problem": Nadal owns an 18-10 head to head advantage over Federer, including 8-2 in Grand Slam matches.
Perhaps if Nadal wins five more Grand Slam titles even Federer's most loyal devotees will have to admit what has been apparent for several years: Nadal has authored a career that is at least as dominant and accomplished as Federer's.